The Work Squeeze

I have written frequently about the spectre of underemployment, and today two perfectly matched articles were released. The July/August issue of The Atlantic features A World Without Work by Derek Thompson.  Thompson does an outstanding job in diving into the true costs of automation-driven underemployment, correctly pointing out how low wage share of GDP has gone (the lowest ever on record!); and how joblessness has not historically led to leisure and fun, but rather to antisocial frustration of community. He ends with an excellent analysis of communal work, such as one encounters at Tech Shops and other community spaces where creative individuals strive together on projects combining craftsmanship and business sense.  But he also makes clear that none of this works without fairly revolutionary changes to the social contract- whether we have guaranteed minimum incomes, or subsidies pushing companies to underemploy rather than lay off; it’s all in a form of federal control that our country has serious trouble accepting.

Paired with this we have the news that Amazon has doubled and quadrupled the cost of Mechanical Turk, as reported in Business Insider.  This is remarkable because the Uber’s, Airbnb’s and Mechanical Turks of our world are the wedge opportunism plays that enable the underemployed to compensate for lost wages. And here comes the reality of that relationship: the company is dealing, not with an organized labor force, but with hundreds of thousands of separate people, together yielding scant power to push back if the corporation changes the rules overnight. And there are no Taylor Swifts on Mechanical Turk to move a corporate mountain. Alas.

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